If the dead could talk, imagine the tales that would be spun in Wheeling's historic old cemeteries: A pioneering surgeon might converse with prominent bankers, shipbuilders and merchants. Business rivals would argue over whose grave monument is taller. A Civil War soldier could confirm or refute the claim on his tombstone that he was shot at Andersonville Prison.
At Mount Wood Cemetery, high atop a hill overlooking North Wheeling, downtown and Fulton, the scene is sad and spooky, with many ancient headstones leaning precariously or toppled over and with stark mausoleums missing windows or caving in. A magnificent marker for the McLure family - of McLure House hotel fame - remains standing, albeit in three pieces as the broken top and the middle section rest near the base. At Victorian businessman John List Jr.'s vault, crumbling stone markers from other family members' tombs are propped against the stone structure amid fallen leaves.
Fortunately, an impressive stone monument to eminent surgeon Dr. Simon P. Hullihen (1810-57) appears unscathed from the ravages of time. Carved stone panels laud Hullihen on the towering structure "erected by the citizens of Wheeling in memory of one who had so lived among them that they mourned his death as a public calamity."
Dressed in traditional Victorian "widow's weeds," Wheeling historians and authors Jeanne Finstein and Judi Hendrickson presented a program for the Ohio County Public Library's Lunch With Books series Tuesday, Oct. 26, on "Cities of the Dead: The Final Resting Places of Wheeling's Famous and Infamous."
Hendrickson explained the symbolism of grave markers and related mourning customs, particularly of the Victorian era. She also distributed funeral cakes - small, hand-wrapped cakes used as "invitations" to a funeral or passed out at the gates of a cemetery. Finstein told the history of various Wheeling graveyards; both women talked of notable people interred in Mount Wood, Stone Church, Greenwood and Mount Calvary cemeteries.
Explaining the purpose of tombstones, which date to Greek times, Hendrickson said people "believed that the spirits of the dead could come through the grave. Heavy stones were placed on the graves so the spirits of the dead could not come out of the ground."
In Victorian times, the mourning period lasted for a year or up to two and one-half years after the loss of a spouse. Women wore black clothing known as "widow's weeds," with nine-inch "weeper's cuffs" designed "to block her tears" and a veil to cover the face, Hendrickson said. A man in mourning wore a black band around his arm or on his hat. Children as young as 3 months also donned mourning garb, she said.
Regarding gravesite symbolism, Hendrickson said a shrouded or draped urn represented the soul departed or the last partition between life and death. A torch stood for life in the next realm or an extinguished life. A lamb, often found on a child's grave, referred to the Lamb of God.
As a rose signified unfailing love associated with the Virgin Mary, she said, a bud remembered a child; a partial bloom was for a teenager; a full bloom marked someone who died in the prime of life and a broken rosebud meant a life cut short. Angels were viewed as agents of God, and doves are symbolic in both Christian and Jewish cemeteries. A Christian cross with three staffs symbolized faith, hope and charity, she said.
Meanwhile, Finstein said there are 57 cemeteries and three pet cemeteries in Ohio County. Some of the earliest graveyards were the City in North Wheeling, the Chapline on 23rd Street, the Hempfield on the present-day library site, the East Wheeling at 16th and McColloch streets and the Red Men's (fraternal organization) on Chapline Street Hill.
Stone Church Cemetery houses burial plots of prominent early residents such as the Shepherd family, Archibald Woods, Daniel Steenrod, Lewis Steenrod, George and Elizabeth Paull and James and Mary Vance, Finstein said.
Mount Wood Cemetery contains graves moved from the former Hempfield Cemetery and has a Jewish section, Hendrickson said. Mount Wood is also the resting place of George Coen (1835-64), a Civil War prisoner purportedly "shot (at) Andersonville Prison"; dry good merchant and slave owner John Goshorn, who retrieved his runaway slave, Lucy Bagby, from Cleveland; Isabella Kelley, wife of Gen. Benjamin Kelley; Hullihen, "the father of oral surgery" and Wheeling Hospital founder; Noah Linsly, who bequeathed funds to establish a Lancasterian school for boys; and Capt. John McLure.
Finstein related that Mount Calvary Cemetery, dedicated in 1879, features the Bishop's Chapel where many Roman Catholic bishops are interred, a priests' section and a Sisters of St. Joseph area. Among those entombed at Mount Calvary are Christian Hess, a successful tailor; Col. Thomas O'Brien, a Civil War veteran and state treasurer; and members of the Owens family of glassmaking fame.
When Greenwood Cemetery opened in 1866, it consisted of 37.5 acres purchased for $11,120.91 from the Hildreth family, Finstein said. Its oldest occupant is Elizabeth Alexander Caldwell, who died in 1803 and whose remains were moved there later. The notable dead at Greenwood include Dr. John Eoff, Noah and Mary Chapline Zane, Thomas and Tryphena Hornbrook, William Stamm, J.L. Stifel, Dr. John Frissell, Dr. James Reeves, Michael Sweeney, rival brewery owners Anton Reymann and Henry Schmulbach, she said.
Other well-known figures buried at Greenwood, Hendrickson added, include Dr. Robert Hazlett, James W. Paxton, Mifflin Marsh, Augustus Pollack, S.S. Bloch, Jacob Thomas, Earl Oglebay, James Nelson Vance, Edward Bates Franzheim, William Weiss, Sallie Maxwell Bennett, Leon "Chu" Berry and Eleanor Steber.